Metal Machine Music (series: Noise. Life. Death., part 2)

The existential power of noise.

by Dave Skipper

Introduction

“Two records. Four sides of guitar feedback ending with a locked groove. Subtle references to speed on the jacket sleeve. This is the legendary Lou Reed album Metal Machine Music. When first released back in 1975, people were outraged and/or confused that Lou released such a ‘thing’ on the heels of the best-selling albums, Sally Can’t Dance and Rock’n’Roll Animal. Amazingly enough, it sold 100,000 copies anyway. The rumors flew – some believed that Lou was trying to break his contract with RCA, which others thought he just flipped out. Meanwhile a smaller number of people enjoyed it, purely for its soft dissonance or for its place in the history of minimalism. And there are those that just admired Metal Machine Music for its sheer audacity.”

– Browbeat, a zine ‘dedicated to dissonance in all its glory’

“Metal Machine Music is an enigma; no one has ever really been sure what to make of it. Was it art? Or a jab at the record company? Or a joke? Whatever it was, the album is one of the most polarizing releases ever by a major artist. Essentially four sides of processed guitar feedback, Metal Machine Music will test the patience of all but the most die hard fans.”

– from https://www.rarerecords.net/store/lou-reed-metal-machine-music-rare-1975-quadraphonic-2-lp-set/

I can’t remember how or when I first heard about Metal Machine Music (hereafter MMM). I was just starting to discover the world of extreme noise music, specifically Japanese harsh noise, and must have read something about MMM being a seminal album in the backstory of noise music, and that it was understandably controversial in its reception. At the time I was still peering over the edge into noisedom, and was definitely fascinated but not as yet converted. The idea of listening to a full hour of unrelenting guitar feedback didn’t especially appeal to me, but I was really intrigued by the concept and the fact that someone would bother to record and release such a project back in the mid-70s before modern noise music à la Japanoise etc had yet been born.

Lou Reed made his name in the late 60s as the driving force behind the highly influential (though at the time largely ignored) American rock band The Velvet Underground, before embarking on a long solo career. Although theories have varied wildly as to Lou Reed’s intention behind MMM’s concept (but see the next section for his own answer to that question) and its placement and influence within such disparate strands of music history as pop, rock, industrial, avant-garde, and pure noise, there was and is no doubt my mind that in retrospect MMM was markedly prescient of the preoccupation (for whatever reasons) with fully distilled noise that characterises, defines, and propels the works of Merzbow et al from the 1980s onward. At the same time, it would be not only simplistic but incorrect to give MMM the status of necessity in the trajectory of noise music’s development: if there had been no MMM there would still have been Merzbow, Japanoise, and the numerous other noise-related musics before and since. There has never been a singular influence behind the explorations and innovations of noise music. MMM’s uniqueness lies largely in its being released into the mainstream on an unsuspecting public, as opposed to being a niche project in the hidden underground at one end of the non-mainstream spectrum or a high-brow art statement of the avant-garde at the other.

In His Own Words

“This record is not for parties/dancing/background romance. This is what I meant by ‘real’ rock, about ‘real’ things. No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself. It is not meant to be. Start any place you like. Symmetry, mathematical precision, obsessive and detailed accuracy and the vast advantage one has over ‘modern electronic composers.’ They, with neither sense of time, melody or emotion, manipulated or no. It’s for a certain time and place of mind.”

– Lou Reed, liner notes to Metal Machine Music

“No, it’s not the truth. I wouldn’t put out a record I don’t like just to get out of a contract. That’s ridiculous but it is a great story. It’s almost a shame to say it’s not true. But in fact it’s not true. I made it because I liked it, not to get out of a contract… It was great, great fun. I was trying to do the ultimate guitar solo. And I didn’t want to be locked into a particular drum beat, or pattern or a particular key or beat that was the idea. Just guitars, guitars, guitars.”

– Lou Reed interviewed in Metal Machine Music Revisited, by John Doran in Quietus

“Anyone who gets to Side 4 is dumber than I am.”

– Lou Reed

Reaction to MMM

Here are a bunch of great quotes about MMM from various music critics and artists.

“…an act of provocation, a jab of contempt… In its droning, shapeless indifference, Metal Machine Music is hopelessly old-fashioned. After a decade of aesthetic outrages, four sides of what sounds like the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator just aren’t going to inflame the bourgeoisie (whoever they are) or repel his fans (since they’ll just shrug and wait for the next collection). Lou Reed is disdainfully unveiling the black hole in his personal universe, but the question is, who’s supposed to flinch?”

– James Wolcott, Rolling Stone, August 14 1975

“Recommended cuts: NONE”

– Billboard

“…it shows integrity – a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless… It is the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum… If you ever thought feedback was the greatest thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars.”

– Lester Bangs, CREEM, 1976

“Metal Machine Music is an hour’s worth of the equivalent of a dentist’s drill drilling into an infected tooth, a jackhammer riveting into your skull.Except it’s perhaps less melodic than that. You know the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard? This is worse – a lot worse.”

– Andy Whitman, music critic

“…the most extreme statement any popular music artist has ever made (given the context right after his most popular album)… his crowning achievement.”

– Phil Milstein, musician

“It’s the most positive negative record.”

– Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth)

“It’s really great. Beautiful. Refreshing. I’d like to do a cover. I thought it came from 100 years in the future and yet ancient, too.”

– Yamatsuka Eye (Boredoms)

“It was the most ecstatic music when I first heard it, and I still feel that way.”

– Hoppy Kamiyama (Optical 8)

“It is the origin of pure noise.”

– Akifumi Nakajima (Aube)

“I did listen to that whole record through, many, many times and I remember wondering what the big deal was, like the disappointment of not being shocked by a highly anticipated horror movie. The fact that he somehow made us all listen to this hour of feedback over and over, literally crawling into the speakers, trying to catch a glimpse of the hidden Evil, the outspoken cruelty of such a venture and the redeeming quality of living through it, while Lou obviously didn’t care about us or this release, proves in retrospect what a tremendous impact the man had on me.”

– Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten), No Sell Out (The Wire, Nov. 2013)

“…an intense collision of surreal object, hate letter, emotional outburst, poetic assault, bubblegum serialism, artistic bombshell, infected ambition, celebrity breakdown, creative exhaustion, sinister confession, nervous tension, practical joke, artistic tantrum and psychedelic documentary.”

Paul Morley, The Guardian, 2010

“Metal Machine Music was released the same week — twenty years ago — as Discreet Music [Brian Eno album]. Discreet Music is soft, calm, melodic and reassuringly repetitive, without a single sound other than tape hiss about 1500 Hz, whereas MMM is as abrasive and unmelodic as possible, with almost nothing below — and yet they occupy two ends of what was at the time a pretty new axis — music as immersion, as sonic experience in which you float. ‘The roots of Ambient.’”

– Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices, 1995

Many of these quotes were compiled in the same Browbeat zine that I quoted at the very start of this article. The zine also included a fascinating interview with Lou Reed in which he described the recording process and techniques utilised in the creation of MMM. The article scans can be seen here.

My Experience of Listening to MMM

Somehow or other I got hold of a recording of MMM, I forget when. I was determined to give it my full attention. I knew it would be a serious test of endurance, but I felt that it was a necessary rite of passage in my desire to interact with and appreciate the world of noise. I wanted to truly and deeply listen to the whole thing in one go. Undistracted, headphones on. Focussed.

I imagine that some people who claim to have listened to MMM have done so in one of these ways:

  • Listened to snippets here and there, skipping forward several times;
  • Listened to a few minutes then given up;
  • Listened to it one section at a time (being divided neatly into four sections each of 16:01 length);
  • Had it on in the background while doing something else (working, driving, cooking, sleeping…);
  • Not listened to it at all.

And so I waited for the right opportunity. It came while staying with my in-laws in Finland one summer. I went for a walk in the beautiful unspoilt Finnish forest at dusk, and I must say that was the perfectly serene and eerie time and location for the job!

What followed was absolutely pivotal for me. Bear in mind that this was all from my first listen and that these were my immediate thoughts and impressions of that experience. Arguably the sonic importance of MMM is overrated due to its particular circumstances; the train of thought that MMM instigated in me could have come from any one of many other noise records. But in my own journey into noise MMM opened up doors of questioning that were actually the genesis of this whole blog project. It has taken a number of years for me to finally get to writing this all out at last, but the seeds and possibilities of the kind of deep thinking about noise that I engage in were crucially watered by MMM.

Part I: Ok. The sounds are ok. Interesting, layered, boring, annoying, soothing… ok. 10, 15 minutes in I’m starting to have enough of it. It’s pretty directionless, monotonous, grating. I’d like to stop listening. Stop! I don’t really see the point of carrying on with more of the same. But I decided that I will go through the whole thing. Will power. I just need to continue to decide to keep listening…

Part II: This is tough going now. The noise is beating me, in both senses. It’s beating me down, wearing me down, crushing me. It’s beating me in the stakes, it’s winning. Does noise always win? The noise always wins. I’m persevering by pure effort of will. So my will has power over the noise? But no, I’m compelled to continue against my will. I’m being battered into submission. My will has no say in it, no power. Which is it, does my will have power or no power? I can’t tell, but the noise is winning.

Part III: Ok, now I’m over halfway, it’s a little easier to filter the noise. I’m still undistracted externally, it’s just the noise and my mind. My thoughts. Deep thinking is advancing, I can wrestle with the existentialism of it all. Clarity? Not quite, but there is hope. I had given up as to how worthwhile this experience could be. It was not constructive. But now it is constructive, I’m getting somewhere with unravelling the power and paradox of noise. Maybe.

Part IV: It’s all downhill from here. The end is in sight. It’s not too hard to keep going now. I can do this. I’m gonna do this! Now I can clearly feel my will and control are over the noise. I’ve broken through the stifling control that the noise seemed to hold over me. Into the last three minutes of listening, and oh what’s this? A loop! Some semblance of structure, of order! Only some, but some nevertheless! The loop is apparently interesting, an oasis after the preceding endless barren waste. Humanity is imposed on the piece for the first time. So this is my reward for listening all the way through? Hurrah!

I’m exhausted but elated. I did it! And it was worth it! And I never need to listen to it again, haha!

I must confess that at that point time, musically I found MMM to be a turged, barren, almost completely meaningless exercise. But philosophically and spiritually it ultimately proved both fascinating and fruitful. I will explain why and how in greater detail in the next article where I will describe fragments of the thoughts I had during that experience. These are themes that I continue to mull over, and they provide a springboard for a number of angles, intersections, orbits, and trajectories for further exploration and distillation in this ongoing Noise. Life. Death. article series.

Update: Listening to MMM Anew

Years later, my ears and tastes have shifted significantly such that the idea of listening to long stints of sheer noise is no longer in itself off-putting (depending on what the noise is), and I have for a long time now been enamoured of noise music, especially the harsher varieties. It turns out that MMM was a portal for me into the beauty of noise – one portal amongst others – albeit a portal of suffering at the time!

I thought to myself while typing up the above notes that if I were to listen to the whole thing again today I would doubtless have a very different set of thoughts and reactions. My listening approach and perceptions of noise have altered and developed radically in the intervening years, such that I now enjoy noise immersion and the analysis of excessive timbres. I have better ears for perceiving the kinds of subtle shifts and complex layers that MMM exemplifies. So finally I sat down to listen to MMM in its entirely once again. As expected this was indeed a notably different experience.

Part I: Disappointing. Significantly less ‘feedbacky’ than I had remembered, and significantly more rhythmic (largely via tremolo-induced pulsings) and melodic (albeit atonally) than I had remembered. I’m now more conscious, however, of the almost constant movement at the micro-level, and how that contrasts to the overall directionless virtual non-structure at the macro level.

Part II: Almost bassy at the start of this section: a flicker of hope! Up to now it’s all been mids, upper-mids, and highs. But the hope was short-lived – the lower sounds dissipate after just a few seconds, and we’re back in the spiralling morass again. I’m strongly aware of the stereo field, as different segments and layers have been distinctly recorded in opposite channels. Thankfully this stereo enhancement does not yield double pain but actually makes the dissonance more bearable and even interesting as the ears are pulled in different directions to pay attention to the evolving details.

Part III: I sound more excited than I was in Part 2. This is boring. Compared with the pummelling barrage of Japanese harsh noise that I’ve grown accustomed to, MMM now feels very tame. There are some occasional almost arpeggio-esque atonal runs in the background that make for pseudo-repeating motifs, and these curtail the boredom slightly, but they have insufficient appeal to excite me at all.

Part IV: Another bassy fragment at the start (only about 5 seconds?) – hope revisited momentarily, before being extinguished again. But knowing this is the final part has now brought a different kind of hope: not the hope of good music on the way, but the hope that this miserable music will surely come to an end! Oh, some comparatively satisfying low blasts at the very end, that was nice.

Headphones off. Back into the real world. I feel alive alert with ears pricked up now that I am out the other side of that torpid stupor. Fresh air!

General observations. I was able to listen to MMM a lot more objectively this time around. In fact, I found it to be nowhere near noisy enough for me(!). It was a much easier listen; still unpleasant, but in a disappointing way this time. The first listen was incredibly overwhelming. This second listen was incredibly underwhelming. I felt markedly disaffected, with no compulsion to stop at any point.

Having no low end is a major con for me. The couple of brief interjections of ‘bass’ were actually just lower mids, but it’s just that they felt like bass frequencies compared to the full 60+min with nothing at all in or below the low-mids.

There are momentary ebbs and flows in the overall amplitude and dynamics. Well, I should actually say that there are only a few momentary ebbs that give some measure of relief against a vaguely uniform backdrop of unimpeded directionless flow. Why were these ebbs enjoyable? For respite, or for the dynamic variation that they provide, or for their timbral minimalism/focus? Interestingly, those ebbing moments were all comprised of feedback tones, which ironically end up as the least noisy components of the entire composition! They also serve to slow the pace right down, as the franticity (sic) disintegrates, quickly reassembling before you get too used to the change of scenery.

Then and Now

The same noise, the same music. Yet the mode and impact of the noise shifted for me, from an assault that presented a crisis of the will, to a drab unpleasantness that nevertheless revealed greater nuance. Different kinds of endurance, different feelings evoked, different pockets of philosophy encountered. Did the noise become music to my ears? Strangely it seems that I leapfrogged MMM during the gap between listens. From too noisy, to not noisy enough. From too extreme, to not extreme enough. It is as though I have wormholed from one point in space to entirely another, proferring monumentally different emotions and preferences and evaluations.

Intrigued yet? Check it out for yourself:

Conclusion: Beyond MMM

Noise music is so diverse than no single album can ever hope to represent the whole. Nevertheless, as just one example of an archetypal noise record MMM delivers the goods. It was a jumping-off point for me to start attempting to formulate a uniquely Christian perspective on noise and noise music (as you will see in the next article), and it was as good an album as any for diving into the notions of extremity and excess which noise music naturally excels at.

My observations, thought processes, and lines of reasoning that I will outline in the next article represent solely my own ideas and experience that listening to MMM catalysed. I don’t for a moment imagine that Lou Reed would endorse my ‘interpretation’ as I have had no thought of filtering my opinions through his intentions or ideology. But then the artistic abstractness of noise certainly welcomes a myriad of readings (listenings).

What MMM exemplifies and invites in its portrayal of ‘noise as music’ is the open conversation about just what noise and noise music entails, evokes, elicits, and explains. Or what noise does not entail, evoke, elicit, or explain. I am not concerned with ‘reviewing’ MMM. I honestly haven’t even thought about evaluating it as good/bad or recommended/not recommended. Whether I ‘like’ it or not is completely irrelevant. Similarly I have not tried to discover what MMM ‘means’. Considered purely in its prime domain as a bold and provocative artistic statement, MMM is exciting, daring, raw, and essentially simple in its scope and primal effect. That it has subsequently garnered such criticism and praise, and such wide-ranging discussion and analysis proves as much about the fundamental connection/disconnection to noise that we all have as much as anything else. The aesthetics of MMM seem to me to be secondary or tertiary in value alongside the depth of abstract/concrete reflection that it stimulates. The discussion hasn’t stopped yet.

Next time, I will provide a window into my attempt to dissect my reactions to MMM.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

MMM Sleeve Artwork

Quadraphonic vinyl release, front and back; note the equipment list on the back:

25th anniversary edition, front and back:

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